The Common Law

COVID-19 and Austin – answering your legal questions (part 6)

"The Common Law," which typically runs monthly, has started to address your COVID-19 legal questions on a weekly basis. You ask. We'll do our best to answer for as long as possible. Here are more questions and quick answers:

I worked for a small business and was laid off. My boss said there's been a slow-down due to the coronavirus and that's why I was being laid off. Is there any law that would require the company to keep me on as an employee?

Unlikely under these facts. Texas is an employment-at-will state, which generally means that either the employer or employee can terminate the employment without giving notice or a reason. In this instance, if the employer terminated employment due to the downturn in the economy, the employer was likely within its rights under the employment-at-will doctrine. Facts that could change the analysis include whether you have an employment contract (if yes, the terms of the contract regarding termination may control). The employer also may not terminate employees if the motivating factor for the termination is unlawful (age, race, disability, national origin, religion, and several others).

I own a rental home and I use the rent to pay my outstanding monthly mortgage. My tenant isn't paying May rent because of the coronavirus. Do I have to pay the mortgage payment, or can I delay my mortgage payment?

The government has passed various protections for tenants during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, the Austin City Council passed a 60-day grace period for owed rent before a landlord can post a notice to vacate. And all eviction hearings in Travis County were postponed until at least May 8 (see previous "The Common Law" topics on the subject of tenant relief legislation).

But what if you are the owner of the rental property and use the rent to make the monthly mortgage payments? The federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March. The CARES Act provides two major protections for homeowners with federally backed mortgages. First, you have the right to request a forbearance of the mortgage payment for up to 180 days (and you can ask for an additional 180 days after that) if you experience financial hardship due to COVID-19. While the homeowner will ultimately still owe the amount due on the mortgage payments, there are no additional fees, penalties, or additional interest owed during the forbearance period. Second, the lender or loan servicer cannot foreclose for the 60 days after March 18, 2020. This basically stops lenders from initiating foreclosure proceedings or finalizing a foreclosure judgment or sale until May 18, 2020.

Many mortgages are backed by various federal agencies, which makes the loans eligible for the CARES Act forbearance option. Call your loan servicer to learn more, particularly if you don't know who owns or backs your mortgage. For more information, read the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Guide to Coronavirus Mortgage Relief Options.

I've seen a bunch of folks in my neighborhood violating the shelter-in-place order. What's their punishment if caught?

That's a gray area, at least as of the date of this column (May 4). The gray area is created by the tension and inconsistencies between Mayor Adler's shelter-in-place order and Governor Abbott's relaxing of COVID-19 limitations and restrictions.

If the folks in the neighborhood are violating the city's order (which may not be the case any longer), then under the city's shelter-in-place order, violations are controlled by Austin City Code section 2-6-24. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or confinement in jail not to exceed 180 days. Police officers, city code inspectors, and the fire marshal are allowed to enforce this order. Call 311 (not 911) if you see large groups of people that appear in violation of the order. Mayor Adler has stated publicly that there simply aren't enough enforcement officials for the number of city residents. This is likely even more true now that Governor Abbott's order contradicts the Austin order.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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